I first met Isabelle Huppert while she was promoting her roller-skating role in the movie that was supposed to be her entree into Hollywood: Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate.”
That was not to be. But since then, Huppert has turned out consistently great performances and has become nothing less than the Meryl Streep of France.
She’s earned 15 César nominations (winning for Claude Chabrol’s “La Ceremonie”), all while being fearless in her choice of roles — look at her two Cannes Best Actress winners, Michael Haneke’s “The Piano Teacher” and Claude Chabrol’s “Violette Nozière.”
Photo by VILLARD/NIVIERE/SIPA/REX/Shutterstock
This is a woman who has put in her 10,000 hours. She knows from sex and violence, how to make things real, and how to retain an ironic distance. The Academy has seen fit to reward the likes of fellow Frenchwomen Emmanuelle Riva (her “Amour” costar), Juliette Binoche, and Marion Cotillard; Huppert is more than due. (Read more on the crowded Best Actress race here.)
Which is why Huppert was utterly prepared for her two lauded 2016 roles on the festival circuit, Berlin director-winner Mia Hanson-Love’s “Things to Come” (IFC/Sundance Selects) and Paul Verhoeven’s “Elle,” which Sony Pictures Classics scooped up just before Cannes—and well before France submitted the psycho-thriller as its official foreign-language Oscar entry.
“Subtitles won’t prevent people from going to see Verhoeven’s picture,” said SPC co-president Michael Barker. “There are few stars anymore in terms of directors and countries.”
In fact, Huppert got “Elle” made, after bankable American stars (like Streep) wouldn’t sign onto American screenwriter David Birke’s kinky thriller, an adaptation of the erotic novel by French author Philippe Dijan (“Betty Blue”). However, Huppert wanted to portray Michèle Leblanc, an elegant woman who is raped in her home and refuses to call the police (she prefers to buy pepper spray and learn how to shoot).
So, Dutch-born Hollywood filmmaker Verhoeven (“RoboCop,” “Basic Instinct”) decided to direct his first French movie. “It’s a hybrid,” he said. “Isabelle made it French. Paris and France gave me Isabelle. She could only exist in France.”
You could argue, as many critics have, that Huppert makes this odd concoction work. Verhoeven has often worked with sexual stories, but it’s easy to see how this take on a woman’s rape could play badly in our current climate. The director and actress understood how to make the movie less about erotica and kinky psychology and more about a sophisticated, mature woman who needs to be in control, even of her sexual assailant.
Huppert thanks Verhoeven for deciding not to make a Hollywood movie in favor of a French one, and for learning their language. “We got along so well and he hardly said a thing to me from the beginning,” she said at the Telluride Film Festival, sitting at a shady picnic table outside Sheridan Opera House. “We shot 11 weeks; I was in each shot. He never said a word. It was a complete mutual understanding and it was just amazing.”
Huppert chooses her directors and roles carefully. “I have confidence in the people I work with,” she said. “That’s why I pick them. It’s not that I trust myself, I find people who I can completely rely on their talent and the confidence they have for me, it’s a mutual relationship. It’s not only me that trusts them but they trust me.”
Having two wonderful films in one year “is one of those happy coincidences in an actor’s life,” she said. “They are completely different, but they do have things in common. These two women are neither victims nor avengers. Both women decide, when they are confronted with negative events, that instead of bearing the burden of those events, they are going to take control.”
In “Things to Come,” Huppert is Nathalie Chazeaux, a woman who must contend with handling the end of her marriage, the death of her mother, the birth of her first grandchild, and the decline of her career. “She’s not a victim,” said Huppert. “And none of what happens to her is predictable in the way we usually see these events depicted in other pictures, when if she is left by her husband, most of the time she would fall into tears and emotional reactions.”
Mia Hanson-Love immerses Nathalie in a real world, Huppert said. “Her great talent is to take these events in life and instead of saying more, she says less. There’s something delicate and melancholic about the film, it’s full of optimism and joyful life, and underneath there is the more nuanced notion that you might miss something … Too often fiction films are done in such a way that it might be cinematic or spectacular, but it takes you away from life.”
Both Hanson-Love and Verhoeven have “the ability to step into someone’s life,” said Huppert. “In both cases, you are literally with her, you are not able to predict how she is going to react and cope to things, you witness her without knowing what she is going to do about them.”
In both films, her characters are defined by their work. When “Elle” is raped by a burglar, she doesn’t let it stop her for one instant: she keeps dating, she continues bossing around her employees at her videogame company, and even flirts with an attractive man who might be the person who raped her. When she tells her girlfriends about the rape at a restaurant, they want her to go to the police, but she refuses.
Huppert loved the fact that neither the script nor Verhoeven brought any psychological interpretation to the role. “I didn’t have any preconceived ideas of what it would be,” she said. “I just follow the pattern. She reacts in strange way: She does not take revenge, but she is not a victim either—she’s in between being a victim and rebellion against what happened to her. She chooses an experimental path, she wants to turn the event into an experience. That’s what made the character contemporary, because you never fall into any predictable cliches. Verhoeven allows us to have our own interpretations of why she does that.”
Eventually, Verhoeven reveals some threads of her past. “She seeks something in herself, in her sexual life as a woman,” said Huppert. “It’s a strange way of seeking something, but it’s not a case to be generalized, it’s a single story, it could be a tale, more like a fantasy.”
Huppert ably juggles the multiple challenges faced by these older women, who remain sexy and professional and nurturing of their families. “That’s what made the characters interesting,” she said. “You just have to go on. You have to cope. These accumulations of things they both have to cope with, it’s almost funny. In both films, they immediately see the irony of situations, which of course makes things much lighter.”
Hanson-Love directed Huppert to keep smiling. “She never wanted the role to be too heavy or dark,” Huppert said, “so she constantly oriented my performance toward something lighter. Maybe instinctively, I would have made it less open, less pleasant. That’s what makes the character light and charming and less of the caricature of the women left by her husband.”
Both directors strive to keep things light with comedic elements. “There’s ironic distance in the way [Verhoeven] shows things,” she said. “For me, it prevents you from taking it too seriously, so it’s more an exploration of a fantasy.”
But even if “Things to Come” and “Elle” offer an opportunity to compare men and women directors (and Huppert has worked with many, including Anne Fontaine), Huppert won’t go there: “Obviously, the feminine part of a woman director express herself more than a man. But it’s always difficult for me to categorize a man’s manner and a women’s manner in that way. There are as many differences between a man and a man, as a woman and a woman. So I find it hard to establish a definition of a women’s director’s way of doing things. A man can be very nuanced, too.”